After 40 witnesses took the stand over the course of more than three months, testimony in the landmark trial over how Pennsylvania funds public education ended this week.
But a resolution to the lawsuit brought by school districts, parents, and statewide organizations who say the state’s education funding is so inadequate and inequitable as to violate its constitution isn’t expected anytime soon.
While the plaintiffs and defendants — Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who didn’t argue against the claims, and Republican legislative leaders, who did — have presented their evidence, there are still procedural steps that will last into summer. Then the Commonwealth Court judge who heard the case will issue a decision.
Whatever she decides, an appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is likely. And the ultimate ruling won’t necessarily result in immediate changes to how schools are funded.
Here’s what to know as the case enters its next phase, with closing arguments scheduled for March 10.
What’s happened in the Pa. school funding trial so far?
The plaintiffs’ case depicted inadequate conditions inside Pennsylvania school districts and offered expert testimony about the relationship between school funding and student outcomes. Superintendents and teachers from the six districts suing the state — including Delaware County’s William Penn as well as Philadelphia — said they lacked resources needed to improve their students’ academic performance, in contrast with wealthier districts that can more easily raise revenue through local taxes.
Penn State education professor Matthew Kelly analyzed Pennsylvania’s funding approach for the petitioners and described it as “irrational,” with poorer districts shortchanged by the state’s failure to more fully adopt a formula that distributes additional money to communities with needier students, including those living in poverty or learning English.
Pennsylvania relies heavily on local taxes to fund education, and Kelly found that the wealthiest 20% of school districts spend $4,800 more per pupil than the poorest 20%, while the poorest had the lowest standardized test scores and highest dropout rates.
Other experts testified that court-ordered school funding increases have led to higher earnings and reduced achievement gaps; that Pennsylvania could net not just fiscal, but social benefits worth billions of dollars if levels of educational attainment increased; and that expanding prekindergarten could help narrow gaps.
Lawyers for Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman and House Speaker Bryan Cutler, arguing that Pennsylvania’s per-pupil spending ranks in the top 10 nationally and that the state meets constitutional standards, focused on what school districts were offering their students. They also sought to cast doubt on the value of standardized test scores as a measure of educational quality.
One of their expert witnesses, Jason Willis of the WestEd education research group, said Pennsylvania’s education funding was in line with peer states. He also noted examples of lower-spending school districts that were performing as well as or better than higher-spending counterparts, though petitioners cited a possible error in his comparisons.
Other witnesses came from right-leaning think tanks. Max Eden, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said Pennsylvania schools are well-funded; he was questioned about his advocacy, including referring to teachers unions as “cartels.” And Eric Hanushek, an economist and senior fellow at the Hoover Institute, said there’s not a correlation between higher levels of education spending and academic outcomes — though he noted on cross-examination that some recent studies, including one by plaintiffs’ witness Rucker Johnson, found just the opposite.
Highlighting school choice, lawmakers also called the leader of a Christian school and cyber charter leaders. They withdrew witness Mark Ornstein, a former Michigan charter executive and Philadelphia and Delaware County Intermediate Unit administrator, after several instances of apparent plagiarism in his expert report were uncovered.
What could the judge decide?
There are two claims before Judge Renee Cohn Jubilerer. The first alleges Pennsylvania’s school funding violates its constitution’s education clause, which requires the state to provide a “thorough and efficient system of education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.”
The second alleges a violation of the equal protection clause by discriminating against “an identifiable class of students who reside in school districts with low incomes and property values.”
Petitioners aren’t asking Jubilerer to order a specific dollar figure. Nor are they calling for Pennsylvania to simply run all education funding through its “fair funding formula” — a redistribution that would result in big gains for some of the poorest communities, but would mean cuts for most of Pennsylvania’s 500 districts.
Instead, they want her to declare the system unconstitutional and order lawmakers to determine how much additional funding is required “to ensure all students have the resources they need” to meet state academic standards, said Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center, which is representing petitioners along with the Public Interest Law Center.
Based on a study commissioned by Pennsylvania in 2007, petitioners say school districts should be spending an additional $4.6 billion. (Hanushek, the respondents’ expert, testified that he didn’t believe that study — or similar analyses — were valid.) If Jubilerer were to rule in favor of petitioners, she could order that a new cost analysis be performed, something courts in other states have done.
Would a court order lead to changes in Pa. public schools?
Not necessarily anytime soon. An appeals process would likely play out first. And the order’s language — and how fully the legislature complied — would matter.
“It really depends on the landscape, the politics, the timing,” said Michael Rebell, executive director of the Center for Educational Equity at Columbia University’s Teachers College, who has tracked school funding lawsuits nationally. He said plaintiffs tend to win the challenges — particularly once courts agree to hear the cases and they go to trial.
In other states where courts have ruled funding unconstitutional, political battles sometimes play out: In North Carolina, for instance, a judge last year ordered the state to pay $1.75 billion toward a school spending plan, citing its “repeated failure” to fix education funding problems since the state’s system was found unconstitutional in 2004.
Court orders can be followed by decades of litigation. In New Jersey, plaintiffs in Abbott v. Burke have repeatedly gone back to court since a 1990 state Supreme Court decision finding the school funding system unconstitutional — including winning a 2011 order that forced then-Gov. Chris Christie to restore $500 million to the 31 designated Abbott districts.
But while fully resolving the funding problems identified by courts can take time, that’s not to say meaningful changes haven’t been made, Rebell said. In New Jersey, the Abbott litigation led to universal preschool in some of the state’s poorest districts and a state school construction program, and shaped the formula driving money to schools statewide.
Johnson, the Pennsylvania petitioners’ expert, testified about his research examining 28 states where courts had ruled school funding systems unconstitutional between 1971 and 2010, finding better adult outcomes among students who experienced court-ordered reforms and those who hadn’t.
While the case won’t be over quickly — with briefs on legal arguments hashing out the standard for what’s constitutional not due until July — Klehr said the legislature doesn’t have to wait for a court decision. Wolf’s latest budget proposal, with an additional $1.25 billion for K-12 schools statewide and another $300 million for the state’s poorest districts, would be a “down payment” that “begins to address the inadequate and inequitable funding system,” she said.
A spokesperson for Corman declined to comment on the trial’s possible outcomes, but pointed to a previous statement by the Senate president that the General Assembly “has always met our constitutional mandate.”
“In the last budget alone, we boosted basic education funding by $300 million,” Corman said, also pointing to federal relief received by schools. “The idea that the legislature isn’t properly supporting public schools is patently false.”